Homosexuality as Divine Punishment in Romans 1

Homosexuality as Divine Punishment in Romans 1 April 21, 2010

Romans 1 is one of the most frequently-cited passages in the New Testament when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. I considered simply reposting one of my earlier posts on the subject, but it seemed worthwhile taking the time to focus instead on one specific aspect of the passage. In Romans 1, Paul talks about homosexuality not as a sin, but as a divine punishment for sin. He never says “Because people lusted for people of the same gender, therefore…” they were punished. It is consistently that people have glorified the creature rather than the Creator, or done other such things, and therefore God gave them over to homosexuality.

If we look carefully at the language Paul uses, we notice that the terminology Paul uses for such intercourse not that of sin but that of shame and dishonor. Looking at the background to this language may help us understand why Paul could think of homosexuality as a punishment from God. Paul’s viewpoint appears to be that homosexual intercourse is shameful and contrary to nature, and it is important to look to Paul’s ancient historical-cultural context in determining what such language would mean to him and his readers. Our idea of “natural” intercourse more often has to do with “tab A fitting into slot B.” In Paul’s time, the thinking about nature, gender and intercourse was that men are by nature active and women by nature passive. What would seemed shameful in this ancient honor-shame cultural context was the transgressing of such gender roles, with men demeaning themselves by taking the passive female role, and conversely women taking on the active role which is by nature male.

I suspect most readers are finding themselves instinctively objecting to the above characterization of the “nature” of men and women. And this is the crucial point. If we do not accept what Paul considered “natural” and thus do not accept that men taking on traditional female roles is inherently “shameful,” then it is clear that in our context we are not going to be able to view homosexuality in the way Paul did.

I hope that the aforementioned points about the cultural background to Romans 1 will generate discussion. Ultimately, however, the point in Romans 1-2 is not about homosexuality, either as sin or as punishment. It is to get Jewish readers to agree in thinking of Gentiles in stereotypical ways and condemning them, only to find that they must condemn themselves if they wish to be consistent. And so any Christian who joins in the condemnation found in Romans 1, and does not read on to Romans 2 and come to understand themselves as condemned, has missed Paul’s point entirely, and placed themselves in the role of Paul’s opponents rather than adopting Paul’s own stance.

[Just as a sort of footnote, the idea that an adult male of a greater age and social status taking on the passive role brought shame upon himself is the reason why pederasty was the most common form of homosexual relationship in Greek society. If you look at the images from antiquity I’ve included in this post, you’ll notice they always depict an adult bearded male coupled with a younger one.]

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  • Hellenistic sexual mores must have been quite shocking to Jews like Paul and evidence of what happened when you worshiped idols. One should keep in mind that expressions of homosexuality can vary quite a bit by culture so Paul's homosexuals are not like ours, except maybe in the heyday of Studio 54 or prison. Monogamous homosexual couples would have seemed queer to Greeks and Jews of the time, I mean how are you going to make sons to inherit you property? Your point has merit. The bottom line is that the gentiles lack love and lack mercy. their perversion is only the symptom of the disease. The you that Paul addresses shares in the lack of love and mercy, that is what they are condemned for, not idolatry and perversion. Paul overcame his disgust for those who eat swine. maybe given time he would overcome his disgust for unkosher sex.

  • I certainly was struck by his use of the terminology of "uncleanness" in this context, suggesting the "Levitical roots" of his outlook on this matter.

  • Our idea of "natural" intercourse more often has to do with "tab A fitting into slot B." In Paul's time, the thinking about nature, gender and intercourse was that men are by nature active and women by nature passive.I don't agree with you here. While maybe the objection might partly be due to gender roles, I think it's too much to say that Paul didn't have in mind "tab A/slot B" as being normative and "natural".I think that Mike makes a good point about types of homosexuality. In Paul's mind, homosexuals are being given over to their physical, lustful desires. It's as if he is saying that God has so withdrawn Himself from those who have worshipped idols, that they are becoming "less than" what humans should be, going against their very nature.The bemoaned "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" argument would probably have carried a lot of weight with Paul who grounds so much of his theology in Creation pictures and the historicity of Adam. The natural order of things as laid down by the Creator gets priority in Paul's mind.

  • re: tab A/slot B…I will say that modern conservative evangelical doctrines I have heard on gender rolls would have their bases covered here, describing male/female rolls exactly as you describe Paul having, men=active/initiators and women=passive/submissive. Grudem/Piper's views on gender come to mind. I also remember Elisabeth Eliot writing on that, going as far as describing the sexual union between a man and woman modeling that relationship physically as well as emotionally (ie. penetration = active/initiating, I was never convinced about that point).I appreciate the point you are making, it seems more gospel oriented and less Pharisaical, but it still does not cast homosexuality in a positive light. I don't see the bible as particularly conducive to homosexual unions, at least from a more authoritative reading, even if not literalistic. Not that I am personally opposed to those who are able to read the bible that way.

  • I appreciate the G-R context to the issue — it's crucial, of course. But equally critical for understanding Paul is the functional dualism in creation according to Gen 1 and I don't see that yet here (well, at least your comment on his "Levitical" roots is a start). In other words, the whole light//dark, day//night, male//female, etc., pattern in Gen 1 should have a place in any discussion of Paul's understanding of what is "natural".I'm still impressed with Robert Gagnon's discussion** of the various relevant texts. He handled the OT very well, even though he's only a NT fellow. ;-)**Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

  • Brett Burrowes

    James, I appreciate your wrestling with the text of Romans 1:26-27 rather than assuming a certain interpretation of it, but I do have some disagreements. I agree that the homosexual activity in this passage is divine punishment, but that does not entail it is not therefore itself sin. The language of shame and dishonor is not an indication that sin is not involved. After all, Paul says in Romans 6:21: "So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death." since in the context the wages of sin are death, the things which the readers are now ashamed of are sins. Other verses of Paul in which both shame language and sin is involved or implied are 2 Cor 4:2, Eph 5:12, Phil 3:19.I also don't think I agree with you about your interpretation of natural and unnatural in the passage. Although in other contexts (1Cor 6:9), Paul does seem to have the active/passive partner in mind, here there is no inkling that such a contrast is in view. I simply think "natural" means according to the order created by God or the way God made things to be, and "unnatural" means contrary to the order created by God. In this sense then, all sin is "unnatural" and contrary to the divine order, not just homosexual desire and conduct. I think Robert's comment concerning the functional dualism in creation in Gen 1 is important, since he makes several references to Creator and creation (Rom 1:20, 25). And although I agree that a Christian who joins in the self-righteous condemnation of homosexuals and places themselves in the place of Paul's opponents (Romans 2:1-5), on the other hand I don't think that means Paul wouldn't view it as sin. After all, Paul was not saying that if you view idolatry or any of the things listed in Rom 1:29-31 as sin, you are joining with my opponents and subject to divine judgment. It seems that if I take your argument to its logical conclusion, any Christian who calls something sin is guilty of judging others. I think the attitude that Paul is condemning is the arrogant attitude of self righteous superiority: "I don't do such things," and not the conviction that such things are sins (which Paul states: "They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die." But we have all done those things (Rom 3:9) and we all deserve death (Rom 6:23), so there is no grounds for self-justification. I do think Paul would condemn the self-righteous hatred of Christians towards homosexuals, especially when they make it out to be the worst of all sins, and when they accept other sexual sinners in the church but not homosexuals.

  • Jay

    If homosexual behavior is an effect of divine punishment of sin, we must ask why would it be a punishment rather than a blessing. Is is always a symptom of divine punishment or only in certain contexts. Is it the burning in lust which is unnatural that Paul sees as the punishment or is it the act itself which Paul perceives as unnatural and the result of divine punishment. Paul says marriage is a way to avoid burning (in lust). Would Paul agree that same sex marriage also addresses the problem of same sex burning or would Paul still have reservations about same sex union because of the way he understands the creation story.

  • James, I appreciate the historical interest in understanding Paul in his context. But do we really need Paul to tell us how to live our lives, which is the vibe I'm getting from your couple of posts?

  • There is very little here to fully piece together Paul's thoughts on Homosexuality, though many claim otherwise, but Paul is simply not here to question or qualify his statements. I think same sex marriage would be a oxymoron to Paul. Even among Romans it was considered ludicrous as when Nero was said to have married one of his male lovers. It was conciderd a farce. Since the modern ideas being born gay or homosexuality being pathological were not current, I think he is referring to the Greeks engaging in acts that might arise in the minds of anybody. In fact for many engaging in homosexuality was more cultural than natural. Think of the use of homosexuality in prison. It's not merely because women are unavailable, it also is a way of establishing dominance. On occasion men would be humiliated by having ones slave rape them. It's hard to believe the high incidents of homosexuality among the emperors and Theban/Spartan army is pure chance?

  • Alan, Paul is one of my conversation partners, and many in my religious and cultural context regard him as an authority. Although some would deny it, whether we admit it or not we cannot and do not hold as true everything that Paul did. Our view of the world has changed. And I thought it worthwhile to ask whether this is the case. In particular, if the view that homosexuality is shameful is based on a view of women as inherently inferior to men, then if nothing else perhaps those who question the latter may also question the former. But to answer your question more directly, no one lives their lives today completely as Paul advises, and so the answer is no; but some follow Paul's guidance some of the time, and I'm trying to get such individuals to explore whether Paul's teaching on homosexuality should be in the "applies today" or the "can be safely set aside" category.Terri, I think Paul used "natural" in a way that will not fit the way we use that term today consistently, although it may sometimes. It does fit the way other ancient Greco-Roman authors used it. Paul's reference to nature in 1 Corinthians 11 is a good illustration of this.Brent, if Paul doesn't say that homosexuality is a sin in this passage, what motivates you to argue that "it could be a sin even if Paul didn't explicitly say so"? I think this gets to the heart of the matter. Some approach these passages looking for a way to set them aside; others approach them looking for a way to regard them as authoritative statements of a certain moral perspective they wish to uphold.1 Corinthians 6:9, if it refers to active and passive participants in homosexual intercourse (which is far from certain, as I'm sure you are aware), simply illustrates that Paul considered both the one who lets himself be dishonored, and the one who does the dishonoring, to both be doing something shameful. But if the issue is one that is completely rooted in honor-shame values, and those values are not our values, then it is unclear why we would try to uphold rules when we do not uphold the cultural values that made sense of those rules.

  • Anonymous

    James, A minor quibble: I agree with those who say that Paul would have thought homosexuality was not just unnatural, but wrong in some sense, whether you call that sinful or not.Paul presumably was in agreement with Leviticus, which made homosexuality punishable by death. I doubt that this was strictly enforced, but the attitude was there.However, I think your larger point stands. It is crazy for people today to take our beliefs from an ancient book written with pre-scientific prejudice. Paul's attitude toward sexual relationships and marriage are at odds with modern society. And anybody who says it was better back then and we should go back to those days is either being disingenuous or a lunatic. pf

  • PF, Paul was willing to regard much of Leviticus as no longer binding on Christians. In a sense, what I am suggesting is that, if Paul had not taken for granted certain Jewish assumptions about Gentile homosexuality, and/or if he hadn't shared certain assumptions about honor and shame, he might have regarded what Leviticus says about same-sex intercourse in the same way as he viewed what Leviticus says about clean and unclean food.

  • Anonymous

    James, I hear what you are saying, but in a narrow sense case it may be too cute by half. Whatever Paul's view of the cosmic legality of homosexuality, I would suspect that he thought it was evil.pf

  • Homosexuality is not the only thing Paul thought was against nature. Here's another example: "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God." (1 Cor 11:14-16)Men with long hair are also "against nature." Paul's comment in verse 16 militates against any attempt to treat this as a "cultural" teaching. The very point of grounding the belief in "nature" is to say that it is not cultural. So Paul calls homosexual activity "shameful" because it is "against nature," just as he calls men with long hair "shameful" because it is "against nature." It's a stunning moral argument. I'm utterly convinced in both cases.

  • Thom, I don't think there is any better passage to point to in order to show how different Paul's thinking about "nature" was from our own. Whatever people may think about men's hair length, no one today is going to say that long hair is "unnatural." Hair growth is natural, and anything done to shorten it is an intervention and thus "unnatural" from our perspective.

  • Terri, I think Paul used "natural" in a way that will not fit the way we use that term today consistently, although it may sometimes. It does fit the way other ancient Greco-Roman authors used it. Paul's reference to nature in 1 Corinthians 11 is a good illustration of this.Maybe I'm not being clear, or maybe just that the distinctions we are discussing are too small. I think that part of the problem in trying to suss out Paul's objections to homosexuality are confusing to us moderns in that we rely heavily on the distinctions between our spiritual/emotional life and our physical life. Most Christians are dualists in their perception of human beings. Because we perceive the inner life as being separate from our physical life, homosexuality is viewed as an expression of a person's mind/spirit/soul/whatever you want to call it. We discuss it in terms of two people being in love who just happen to have the same reproductive organs.I don't think that Paul, or most Jewish people, or early Christians viewed things in such dualistic terms.Paul has very physicalist and creationist tendencies in his ideology. Going further into 1 Corinthians 6 reveals Paul's beliefs that there were no distinctions between what one does physically with one's body and what one is spiritually. He refers again to Adam and Eve in verse 16, declaring the sex act as a uniting of two bodies/people….one which is dishonorable if done with the wrong person, such as a prostitute.Paul declares all types of sexual immorality as sinful, homosexuality just being one particular type. I think he makes it clear that "dishonoring" one's body is sin in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20.Paul lays many of his gender role arguments at the feet of the creation story, while 1 Corinthians 11 seems to appeal to what's "natural" in a cultural sense, we also have Paul using the creation story as a basis for having women be submissive in 1 Timothy 2. I just don't think you can separate Paul's ideas about gender and sex from creation and the idea that creatures are supposed to be as God created them, and not step outside of those normal, physical boundaries.To speculate what Paul might have thought if he didn't have the assumptions which he had….well that's to speculate about a Paul who wouldn't be anything close to Paul as we know him. He's have to be an entirely different person.As far as whether or not we need to follow his advice…that's a completely different subject.I'm not really trying to defend Paul, as much as I am resisting the attempt to make him say something that I don't see him saying. He is/was who he is/was. It's up to us to choose what we make of his arguments.

  • Anonymous

    Thom, and I think that goes to my point that Paul thought it was in some sense immoral. But at the same time, it is completely irrational for people today to base morality on the opinions of someone like Paul, who had such a backward and perverse set of views.It's hard to fathom why one of Paul's irrational ideas (homosexuality) has such a strong hold on christians 1900 years later while some of his other irrational ideas (e.g., long hair) are ignored.As much fun as it is to parse through the bible to try and find some clues that the authors may not be as barbaric as they seem, in the end I think that we just have to accept that if you put an ancient in today's world, any right-thinking person would be horrified by their views.pf

  • Terri, I think we pretty much agree on your last point. My aim was simply to show that Paul's thinking here may be shaped by certain cultural and terminological assumptions which we do not share. And to the extent that we all choose not to follow Paul's lead in some areas, I wanted to raise the question whether this might be one of them.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Paul wrote:"Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,Which I suppose means that the historical Jesus did not have long hair. I guess Paul would not have venerated Jesus as the perfect Adam if he had known that he went around preaching with a hippie hairstyle 🙂

  • I tend to (now) see Paul's conversation here not so much with the congregation in Rome, but with Jewish thought which condemned such things as Gentiles did as divine punishment. I do think that he condemned such thought.But condemning such thought is more likely less popular today than it was then.

  • Anonymous

    Antonio, if Jesus had short hair, who is that hippie on the Shroud of Turin? pf

  • James, consider this in-house peer review. Don’t guess my bias (I’m likely more liberal than you – in some ways). This is strictly business.Something tells me that Paul would not play the femme-passive in “receiving” your penetrating cultured hermeneutic as a terminological hair-shaving (make a pun of you want) device to distinguish sin from punishment for sin. Let’s let Paul play the man, that is, Paul-the-man pimping back at you, your own passe-culture-call (Paul to James): “There is no scientific evidence that anyone is born gay or transgendered. Therefore, the College [American College of Pediatricians] further advises that schools should not teach or imply to students that homosexual attraction is innate, always life-long and unchangeable. Research has shown that therapy to restore heterosexual attraction can be effective for many people.Optimal health and respect for all students can only be achieved within a school by first respecting the rights of students and parents to accurate information and to self-determination. It is the school’s legitimate role to provide a safe environment for respectful self-expression for all students. It is not the school’s role to diagnose or attempt to treat any student’s medical condition, and certainly not the school’s role to “affirm” a student’s perceived personal sexual orientation.”http://americancollegeofpediatricians.org/College-Cautions-Educators-About-Sexual-Orientation-in-Youth.htmlMore Paul to James: “It’s your culture – deal with it. Or is it just your scientific culture of the American College of Pediatricians at war with your lit/crit culture? – or is it your good clinical science culture at war with your current political culture? – or is it your plain economially fearful-medical-doctor culture afraid of losing billable-customer-patients (adult parents of children) because in your culture parents fear pediatricians possibly turning their kids into homos? – or, is there valid cultural evidence in your own culture via clinical studies showing clinical recoveries back to heterosexuality away from the rhetorical culture of gay orientation? – what is it James? – which culture is at war with which culture?” Make your choices. Take your picks. And consequences. Cheers,Jim

  • American College of Pediatrics distorts research. Original researcher tells them to immediately remove any reference to their work from the website. http://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/sexuality/pediatric_group_distorts_resea.html

  • Jim

    Okay, let’s append the conversation (Paul to James) since this is even richer:“Okay James (Paul to James), is this an intra-mural culture-of-science war of cold-fusionists (cold-hearted scientists qua scientists)? – or a flat-out “Fraud in the Halls of Science” war in the culture of science? – is a $-culture war with whose-on-first for NAS grant money? -or is this an American College hired Alan Sokal science-spoof war?” What a great wrinkle. Culture wars-to-science take your pick — all the richer war.

  • Jim

    Dig Paul as the editor of “Social Text” when Sokal walks in.And says: “yo, Paul, bend over. I’ve got a load of semiological meme just for you. Sin, punishment for sin — it won’t matter when I’m done with you, baby.”

  • Jim

    A profoundly perceptive comment in agreement with the science-“chicanery” of the ACP (rebuttal by ACA) on that good Episcopalian website: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/sexuality/pediatric_group_distorts_resea.html“Wow. And what a good reinforcement to George Clifford's piece at the Daily Episcopalian, especially the challenge to a 'theology' based on 'natural law' where actual observation of nature is excluded a priori from changing what we understand is natural. It doesn't just happen in the name of theology. Claiming the rigor of science, it happens too – and the same way, cherrypicking data and beyond that quoting out of context. Thanks for posting this, Ann.”I’ll favor this comment because it conforms to my bias in favor of a natural theology (better: theology as a nested set inside of science). This comment is appropriately constrained with its qualifier: “the challenge” to a natural theology. Fair enough. The problem for clinical praxis (forget theology) involves a priori exclusions of what counts as natural – yes true, but misleading both ways. Misleading both ways in that the “rigor of science” rhetoric is a bit premature either way (for medicine or for theology) because epigenetic (here, social, relational, educational) contributions and vectors of influence to sexuality aren’t mapped as is the genome. We don’t know: future clinical studies free of farce and accounting for epigenetics may indeed show sexual polarization (bi/homo/trans) as amendable to clinical helps, that is, without therapy changing the “what-is” of natureThat’s the science question. Back to Paul: the punishment for sin in clinical praxis would be misdiagnosis and mistreatment of any sexual orientation based on the original sin of defining clinical science under cultural pressures alone (either way) – individuals suffering our cultural punishments via our praxis. For now, cherry-picking data is the point that holds in the comment. The dust-up illustrates rather than settles the range of casuistry in my questions to James.Cheers,and enough. Jim

  • Antonio Jerez

    "Antonio, if Jesus had short hair, who is that hippie on the Shroud of Turin?"A fraud! If technical studies haven´t proved it already Paul certainly does.

  • Anonymous

    Antonio, I hope you realize that I was joking. I think that the long hair thing is one of the screamingly obvious clues that the shroud was created in the middle ages. The image looks like a medieval painting. Today a shroud image would have Jesus with an iPod.pf

  • Antonio Jerez

    Anonymous,interesting topic. I think I will have to read more about jewish haircuts in antiquity. And I wonder where the first pictures with a longhaired Jesus started popping up. I recall seeing some of the earliest representations of Jesus from the 2nd and 3rd century with short hair in the greco-roman style.

  • Of the many cultural influences that may have contributed to Paul's assumptions, I wonder about the Stoic university in Tarsus. I recently read a post (can't find a link now) that suggested homosexual behavior was understood in the first century as an excess of passion — oversexed if you will. This would seem to be consistent with the Stoic notion that dispassionate rationalism is the ideal rather than impassioned emotionalism.

  • Anonymous

    Antonio:I've read that the long-haired Jesus cropped up in the fourth century. Some scholar I read a few years back contended that the long-haired Jesus was modeled after pagan gods like Zeus.There is a letter to Constantine from one of the fourth-century fathers (I forget which one) that objected to the new long-haired image of Jesus that was formed at the time. The arguments by this fourth-century writer were several. I think he objected first to the idea of any graven images of Jesus, which up until then were rare. Another was that Paul said it was contrary to nature, and he would not have said that if Jesus had long hair. Another is that in antiquity among men only the Greek philosophers had long hair. Obviously we will never know what Jesus looked like, but if he was a hippie of his day, that probably would have been mentioned somewhere by somebody. pf

  • James,Great read, and one that I think is far more faithful to the text than the "plain" reading so often touted.While I think what you suggest is certainly in play I would also add some additional considerations. Paul, the good Jewish scholar he is, would be very attuned to the cultic worship/liturgical practices of a people set apart by God (the Leviticus worship laws, for instance). Paul's primary concern in all his writings is the Church and it's function as an ecclesia – those set apart by God. In a culture where homosexual relations were part of pagan liturgical practices it is no wonder Paul restricted it from the life of the Church. The same is true for his restrictions on women in both dress and speech. It's about being distinct and distinguishable from the many mystery religions rampant in the 1st century.I have a fuller treatment of each of these passages (the 6 "clobber verses") on my blog if interested. peace!Chad http://chadholtz.net/?p=956

  • newenglandsun

    your interpretation makes sense
    paul also viewed that women should remain silent in church (1 cor 14:34) but who’s really still following that today?

  • newenglandsun

    oh, yes, another thing that should be mentioned is that some of these “cure the gay” ministries insist that gay men are feminine which is not true as evidenced by the following video:
    If black metal is your style.

  • newenglandsun

    I did a little bit more digging on this issue and found that Msgr. Charles Pope would agree with your interpretation but still views homosexuality as sinful.


    I also was browsing through St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and found that he argues as follows…

    “On the other hand, sin can be the punishment of sin accidentally in three ways. First, when one sin is the cause of another, by removing an impediment thereto. For passions, temptations of the devil, and the like are causes of sin, but are impeded by the help of Divine grace which is withdrawn on account of sin. Wherefore since the withdrawal of grace is a punishment, and is fromGod, as stated above (Question 79, Article 3), the result is that the sin which ensues from this is also a punishment accidentally. It is in this sense that the Apostle speaks (Romans 1:24) when he says: “Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart,” i.e. to their passions; because, to wit, when men are deprived of the help of Divine grace, they are overcome by theirpassions. In this way sin is always said to be the punishment of a preceding sin.” (Summa Theologica, 82.2)

    So alas, one’s Biblical interpretation remains insufficient to establish or make a new doctrine it seems. There is an element of historical explanation on theology that remains.